As head of the 400-member Rhode Island Citizens for the Arts, Ocean State native Lisa Carnevale has been actively recruiting, with a goal to reach 2,000 members. “Join the Creative Corps” is the campaign slogan; new members receive dog tags good for discounts and, from time to time, also get what she called “marching orders” to publicly support the arts in various ways. She recently spoke with Providence Business News about the state of the arts in Rhode Island and its future.
PBN: How would you assess the status of the arts in Rhode Island right now?
CARNEVALE: It’s a challenge not unlike any other industry at the moment. We’re still going strong, so the arts are continuing to grow jobs. We have statistics where the industry grew by 1,300 jobs last year … in Rhode Island.
But there’s a struggle, definitely within the nonprofit sector. There are various reasons for it. In terms of the recession, everybody is feeling it. Not many people feel like they have extra money to spend or they’re just not going out as much, so audience attendance has been low, which has hurt a lot of nonprofit organizations. In the for-profit sector, which involves graphic designers, architects, people in the film industry, etc., it’s a mix of [those fields] that did grow jobs overall.
PBN: How important is it for the arts to have government support?
CARNEVALE: I would say it has less to do with the arts. It has more to do with the structure, where nonprofit organizations have been established the last 40 years or so, with there being a certain level of government support for those nonprofit organizations, whether it be their tax-exemption status or more than that.
There’s always a struggle between the private sector stepping up and supporting an area and doing it on its own, or the government stepping up. So that’s the push-pull we see all the time. There is government support for the arts and organizations have been built to trust that that government support is there. … Also, remember, when I’m talking about the creative sector, the creative economy, there is no government support for for-profit creative businesses. That has to be considered.
PBN: What do you think are the major issues facing independent artists in Rhode Island?
CARNEVALE: We consider artists as small businesses, so I would say they face the same type of struggles as any small business would in a lot of ways, such as finding more clients, finding more people to hire them for their services or commission them for a piece of art.
And beyond that, you do have certain amounts of creative, independent artists or creative small businesses that do look to expand and consider buying properties and all that. When you get into that realm, it’s just like anybody else that has a difficult time navigating the system, navigating all the regulations and zoning barriers.
PBN: What’s on your political agenda for the next few months and for 2011?
CARNEVALE: In general, what we’re looking at is a huge change in leadership all around. We’re looking at a new governor, a new mayor of Providence, a new mayor of Pawtucket even, and Congress is changing, which does affect [Citizens for the Arts]. We’re the state captain with Americans for the Arts so we do go down and lobby with our congressional folks once a year. We’re the contact [for the national organization].
So there’s this huge change of leadership all around, including one of the areas inside the General Assembly that the arts goes in front of all the time, which is the House Finance Committee. There’ll be a lot of changes within [that committee].
In our view, it’s a whole new palette.
PBN: Is your group allowed to endorse candidates? Do you get federal funding?
CARNEVALE: We don’t get federal funding. We’re a 501c4 organization, which means we are allowed to spend money on political activity. We legally can endorse, but we’re just not in the position of doing that. We want to build up as a constituency and in the political environment before we put ourselves out there. We’re a nonpartisan political organization for the arts and creative sector.
PBN: What plans would you propose to the new elected officials?
CARNEVALE: We’re really just trying to be out there right now and talking to the candidates for governor and Providence mayor and all the candidates in general. We’re trying to communicate to everybody that’s running that we’re a constituency and … how we would like to work with them. There are two major [points] in that. The first is economic growth of the arts sector, treating it like a sector you’d pay attention to in economic-development ways, to feed the growth of jobs that are happening and looking at it as a viable industry sector for Rhode Island.
And the other is, arts inside schools, the arts education part of it. Unfortunately, it’s something that gets cut all the time, but now that we have a [state aid to education] formula that’s passed, it’s a great opportunity to really start talking about how [the arts in schools] can be properly funded and supported. The arts are part of the core curriculum in Rhode Island. That is a hugely progressive stand. … But, of course, there’s a struggle with the funding all the time. We understand, we respect that, but we’ve got to get beyond that as being our excuse. Let’s start talking about it now. Sure, it might be a few years before we get there, but let’s make this part of our conversation. We can’t shortchange our kids any more.••INTERVIEW
POSITION: Executive director, Rhode Island Citizens for the Arts
BACKGROUND: Although she has been with the organization as a member for six years, Carnevale has been head of Rhode Island Citizens for the Arts for the last 18 months, previously working as a consultant in public relations, advocacy and nonprofit-organization development. She also co-founded the Partnership for Creative Industrial Space in Providence and remains active in that group. She was one of Providence Business News’ Forty Under 40 honorees this year.
EDUCATION: Bachelor’s degree in communications with a concentration in public relations, 1996, Rhode Island College
FIRST JOB: At age 15, she worked as a salesperson at a retail clothing store in Johnston.
Rhode Island Citizens for the Arts,